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 Tuesday 30 October 2007
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BENIN: Agricultural techniques adapted to the constraints of HIV/AIDS

Photo: IRIN
COTONOU, 29 October 2007 (IRIN) - Experiments in new agricultural techniques by a Benin research centre could give a considerable boost to farmers living with HIV/AIDS.

Comlan Houessou, head of the network of people living with HIV/AIDS in Benin, was fascinated to learn about projects by the Songhaï Centre in the capital, Porto Novo, to develop inexpensive agricultural production systems based on agrobiology.

“We are realising that it’s not necessary to have a large area of land to be able to farm,” said Houessou, a 42-year-old farmer. He visited the centre as part of a conference on mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and food security in West Africa, held in early October in Cotonou.

Songhaï, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) set up in 1985, is a centre for training on sustainable farming production, research and development. Its goal is to allow rural African communities to improve their living conditions by using traditional and modern methods of farming and animal breeding, by making the most of local resources and by creating viable agricultural businesses.

The Songhaï Centre’s activities are aimed at all farmers and breeders, not just those living with HIV/AIDS, but Houessou could see immediately what the farming methods could mean to farmers weakened by the virus.

Some techniques require less energy by using short-cycle crops and seed varieties that are resistant to difficult climatic conditions, and require less use of pesticides or other chemical products – which are particularly harmful to people who are HIV-positive.

"Even people living with HIV can [keep up] with this level [of work] without needing to expend a huge amount of energy,” Houessou said. “This is good news for us. These extra-early crops, such as cowpea [a leguminous plant] and corn, could be a great help to us.”

The NGO’s work ranges from small-scale breeding – rabbits, pigs or poultry – to vegetable gardening, growing cereal crops and processing agricultural products. Even by-products such as animal excrement are used, with the view to optimising resources and respecting the environment.

"We do all we can to develop the crops in their natural environment", said Brother Ubeti Godfrey Nzamujo, Songhaï’s founder, during the visit. “Nothing is wasted here, everything is useful to us.”

Houessou said he was particularly impressed by the way the new farming techniques can mean a reduced impact of HIV/AIDS on farming and food security. “We want to devote ourselves to methods that make work less arduous and less time-consuming.”

Nutrition paramount

He noted that nutrition is paramount for people infected with HIV. “You need to eat a lot when your immune system is weakened. I eat a lot of pasta [made from corn], and there are many different varieties of corn here.”

A balanced and healthy diet is crucial for people infected with the virus and is an essential part of their treatment, as it helps to slow down progression of the illness and means the patient does not have to take medication on an empty stomach.

"All micronutrients are important for people who are ill [infected with HIV/AIDS], particularly foodstuffs containing calcium and vitamin A,” said Régine Goma, a nutritionist and president of the regional HIV/AIDS information and prevention agency in Pointe-Noire, Congo’s second city. Goma also took part in the visit to the Songhaï Centre.

''...These days, farming is pivotal to nutrition for people who are ill...''
Doumbia Brahima, president of the association for community health development in Mali, said the medical community is now aware that "we cannot limit treatment purely to [medication]. Here [at Songhaï] we have foodstuffs which contain proteins that ill people need to eat. They are found in both eggs and cereals.”

Nutritionist Goma said, “The notion of energy provision for [people infected with HIV] is essential. These days, farming is pivotal to nutrition treatment for people who are ill.”

Abdou Ibrahima, HIV/AIDS advisor for the German international cooperation GTZ, said that HIV-infected people are better off using local foods. “It is better for people who are ill to prepare local food to have a balanced diet, because diet must reflect the habits of the individual.”

Songhaï Centre founder Nzamujo designed the centre to be “a system for integrated development”, by combining the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. He said the centre’s strength lies in its ability to process agricultural products on site; this in turn supports the distribution process.

In just over two decades, the NGO has supported the development of 500 farms across the country and has trained thousands of young farmers on its four sites, thanks to revenue from production and support from international organisations.

Some have lost land

Houessou noted, however, that in order for people living with HIV to achieve this, they need to have land, and for some that poses a problem.

“Some of us who used to farm have had to sell our assets to cope with the illness”, he explained. “With the arrival of ARVs (antiretrovirals), the majority of people who are infected have managed to get healthy again. Now we want to get back to work, but we no longer have any land.”

“People must help us with our wish to get our land back. We need support to get us back into professional life”, he pleaded. “We will not remain idle. This will ensure food security for us and for the community.”

The co-organisers of the Cotonou conference, SWIHA initiative (Systemwide initiative on HIV/AIDS and agriculture) and ADRAO (The African Rice Initiative), agree.

“The countryside doesn’t exist without farmers,” one poster from the sponsors states. “Let’s use farming to combat HIV/AIDS in rural areas”. A poster at the Songhaï Centre says: “The only way to combat poverty is to turn the poor into farmers”.

Click here for a story about how Comlan Houessou is working to rebuild his life


Theme(s): (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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